‘Latino Life’ exhibit conveys message of empowerment

Mabel Jiménez’ passion for photography and appreciation of art you can hang up on walls ultimately spawned the birth of the annual “Latino Life” photo exhibit.

Throughout her near six years working as assisting editor and photo editor for local bilingual news publication El Tecolote, Jiménez has acknowledged the work ethic of the volunteer photographers as well as their passion, commitment and bravery:

“I see all their talents and I see how they think when I look at their photosets. I see all the shots that the public doesn’t get to see. I can see how they approach a situation and I can see what excites them about a situation. I can see how they interact with a subject through their photos.”

Her years working in print, however, have also made her aware that some people may not fully acknowledge what exactly goes into producing such content when they pick up a copy of the newspaper.

So she conceived and created the event as a way to shine the spotlight on such talented photographers and pitched the idea to Georgiana Hernandez, executive director at Acción Latina:

“I really wanted to sort of have a forum where these photos that are usually on the paper are kind of taken out of that context and put on up as a gallery and appreciate them as art. Not just as sort of information, but to really appreciate what goes into photojournalism. It’s this intersection of art and reporting.”

Jiménez’ vision ultimately came to fruition in 2013 as the exhibit celebrated the diversity of the Latino experience through the lens of the photographers.

The celebration continues Saturday night as Acción Latina and El Tecolote proudly present the fourth-annual exhibit from the Juan R. Fuentes Gallery at 2958 24th St.

The opening reception begins at 6 p.m. and will feature live music from Banda Sin Nombre and La Gente SF.

The exhibit itself runs from Jan. 14 to Feb. 24 and includes works from Emma Chiang, Manuel Orbegozo, Santiago Mejia and Desiree Rios among others.

This year’s event takes on special significance in the wake of a roller coaster 2016, especially following the recent presidential election and subsequent backlash towards communities of color.

CORRECTION This story has been corrected to revise the year the exhibit originally opened and the birthplace of Mabel Jiménez. SFBay regrets the errors.

Jiménez, who was born in Chula Vista, Calif. and grew up in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, told SFBay that she and her colleagues hope the images displayed ultimately convey messages of resiliency and empowerment:

“Everyone is finishing 2016 feeling really bad about so many things that have happened and it can be easy to sort of get yourself down in that pessimism spiral. I think we have a lot of powerful images that should show you that people aren’t taking things lying down. There’s a lot of people out there standing up to injustice, so that should make us feel better and that should inspire us to also want to be a part of that.”

The exhibit has quickly become the only ongoing photography event in San Francisco dedicated to showcasing the Latino experience since its inception and continues garnering positive feedback within the community each year.

Originally called “Latino/a Life in the Bay” during its first three installments, it was renamed “Latino Life” this year since photographers like Orbegozo have recently moved outside of the Bay Area, yet still document the Latino experience throughout and outside the United States.

Jiménez, who will curate Saturday night’s reception, said the exhibit’s unifying theme isn’t just photos of Latino culture, but ultimately photos that were produced through El Tecolote:

“All of it is part of the tradition of what El Tecolote does – to report on social issues and culturally-empowering issues mostly in San Francisco, but anywhere that is of relevance to our readers, and obviously, Latino readers have ties to Latino countries.”

Jiménez said she considers El Tecolote like her second home and enjoys hanging out there on her days off because of how accessible it is to the community – which she believes has earned her and the staff the trust of people on the street:

“You’re surrounded by art, you’re surrounded by very interesting people that come in and talk to us all the time because of the gallery or because of the newsroom and it’s very accessible. You can’t just walk into the (San Francisco) Chronicle and talk to the editor and tell him what you think about the story. You can do that at El Tecolote – you can literally walk in and tell us what you like and what you don’t like.”

She said she also values working alongside her Tecolote family (or “Teco familia” as she calls them in Spanish) because such strong diversity ultimately helps her forget about the lack of diversity that exists in journalism:

“At El Tecolote, you have so many people of so many different backgrounds and once in a while, I step out of that bubble and it feels like a whole other world culturally and whatnot. It’s not as easy to navigate to me and I guess it’s a little safer in that sense that you feel like there is some higher level of diversity. There are so many things that as a person of color you don’t have to explain and you can just get on with the work and I think that’s something that can be really hard to find if you’re working in media.”

Jiménez’ own photos will also be displayed throughout the gallery, but she said she isn’t as excited for that because filling up the gallery with people who are interested in viewing the photographers’ works is what matters the most to her:

“For me, the most exciting part is really not even that part anymore. It’s really just seeing that room fill up – it’s what makes me excited and it’s what makes me nervous leading up to the event, even though we’ve been pretty success so far.”

Jiménez is also aware of how convenient it is today for people to take pictures on their cellular phones – which can easily cause photos to be devalued.

She said she hopes those who attend Saturday night’s reception and visit the exhibit in general will appreciate the hard work the photographers have put in in order to produce such eye-catching and moving visuals:

“I’m really proud of the team we have right now. Everyone is just so talented and so committed and I wish we could pay them. But part of the result of having only volunteers is that you have people that want to do this, not people that are just trying to get a paycheck and pay their bills. It’s people who are going out of their way to contribute something and I think that’s what I want people to get out of it.”

As appreciative as she is towards the photographers, Jiménez said she feels she may not convey her gratitude as much as she should.

Nonetheless, she never takes their work for granted and appreciates the little sacrifices they make so that they can complete their assignments:

“I appreciate them going out in the rain or getting on the bus or the train going somewhere far away or skipping lunch or being somewhere all day long and doing it with a smile on their face. I don’t know that I do a good job of always telling them how much I appreciate that. So that’s the message I want to give to them.”

As for her own recent hard work and contributions, Jiménez said she hopes she’ll be recognized for her concerns for fairness, justice and beauty as well as interest in tackling certain topics that may be overlooked by mainstream media:

“I hope that that will be looked back on as some kind of a contribution, even if it’s just a little grain of sand in the big scheme of things.”